NSW's water regulator said a $350,000 fine to a northern NSW irrigator should serve as a warning to cowboy operators or rulebreakers to think twice before breaching water laws.
ACM revealed on Thursday that Henry Payson Pty Ltd had been fined $353,750 in the NSW Land and Environment Court after admitting to four offences against the Water Management Act.
The court found Henry Payson had "deliberately deceived the regulator" about the amount of water pumped from the Gwydir River, near Moree, during 2016/17 and 2017/2018.
The business was taken to court by the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) in 2021, in what was labelled the largest prosecution the regulator had launched.
NRAR Director of Investigations and Enforcement Lisa Stockley said the court's finding was significant for all water users.
"Communities across NSW have said they want a fair, transparent and enforceable water compliance regime in place to prevent unlawful water take," she said.
"NRAR will take strong regulatory action when required. Those who commit serious, substantiated and wilful acts of non-compliance will face the full force of the law."
Henry Payson operates Binneguy Station at Biniguy, almost 40km out of Moree, off the Gwydir Highway.
In a lengthy judgement, Justice Rachel Pepper found the metering offences were committed partly for financial gain.
"Payson benefited financially from the commission of the meter offences and was, at least to some extent, motivated by profit," Justice Pepper said.
Justice Pepper said the offences caused "substantial harm to the integrity and consistent administration of the water management scheme in NSW".
"Accurate metering information ensures that the regulator is able to set appropriate limits on the amount of water able to be extracted and to properly charge water users for that extraction," she said.
The company admitted to knowingly taking water from a water source while metering equipment was not operating properly between September 3, 2016, and March 21, 2017; and between December 7, 2017, and February 20, 2018.
The company also pleaded guilty to constructing a dam between February 8 and March 9 in 2016, and then using the dam.
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The offences related to knowingly taking water from the Gwydir Regulated River water source when its metering equipment was under-recording the water being taken, and to constructing and using a dam to store water for the purposes of irrigating cotton crops without holding the required approval to do so. A section of the Gwydir River runs adjacent to Binneguy Station.
Justice Pepper said in her 44-page judgement there was a need for specific deterrence in the penalty.
"Payson took water while the meter was not operating properly and in doing so engaged in conduct that fundamentally undermined the ability of the regulator to manage a shared water resource for the benefit of the community and the environment," she said.